Success cane lands squatting dilemma: Illegality vs compassion

Dear Editor,
I am not a politician, a lawyer, nor a teacher but rather, I consider myself as a humanitarian worker, with several decades of rich experience in this noble field. But despite my passion for humanitarianism, I am equally aware of the legal framework in which I operate. No value is absolute; and there are limits to our expression, activities, and knowledge. It is against this background, that I pen this letter.
The flooding of the squatter-occupied cane lands at success by GuySuCo has generated mixed and sometimes harsh reactions in Guyana and in the diaspora. My impression is that both GuySuCo and the Government’s CH&PA felt that they have exhausted avenues to remove the squatters who illegally occupied those lands. After several meetings, persuasions, and promises that included the promise of a grant of house lots to squatters, GuySuCo’s apparent lack of success has left them with no other option but to flood the portion of the Success cane lands that has been illegally occupied by squatters.
This measure has been viewed unfavourably, particularly on humanitarian/compassionate grounds. While critics point, for example, to the squatters’ poverty, hopelessness, and health risks, they ignore or minimise the destruction (amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars) that the squatters have created to the cane fields where different experimental varieties of the cane crop are being nurtured.
Some of these critics are associated with opposition forces, including trade unions, and they claim loftily among other things, that the squatters have been robbed of their dignity and self-worth by GuySuCo’s action. This type of commentary is remarkably interesting. It will be recalled that within the first year of their governance, the PNCR dispossessed over 7000 workers (with a combined family of 35,000 members) of their jobs and livelihood. They inflicted untold suffering upon the dismissed workers and their families who were plunged into poverty, despair, anomie, and social upheaval. A couple of workers even committed suicide. While the PPP/C Government is offering house lots to some of these squatters, the PNCR Government never offered any relief to those 7000 workers and their families and their communities. Furthermore, these critics never spoke of stripping the dignity and self-worth of sugar workers and their families!
To politicise this issue and fan the flames of resistance, will not help the cause of the squatters. Why did some squatters leave the area while others remain intransigent? It was compelling to watch a video in which one of the critics was engaged in a bitter dispute over an ancestral land claim. He along with supporters, who brandished cutlasses, was fiercely defending his right to what he claims is his ancestral property right. He did not want anyone to trespass or to occupy his property. The point is that people and organisations have the right to protect their property (a fundamental right guaranteed in the Constitution) and any encroachment should be vigorously defended. GuySuCo is similarly exercising its rights to reclaim its private property, having exhausted all reasonable steps in the process. Was flooding the right method?
Having given the squatters a few options, and given the intransigence of some squatters, as well as GuySuCo’s need to reclaim the lands for immediate cultivation, the authorities were confronted with a dilemma. Why would anyone or any organisation allow illegality to continue and even flourish? To tolerate this level of illegality is likened onto a man who stole money from his victim and gets his lawyer to plead for his acquittal on grounds that his mother was sick and that he had no choice but to steal to pay for medication. Should the judge free him of this crime on the grounds of poverty or compassion? The law must prevail. He should be sentenced accordingly though compassion could be a mitigating factor.
But in forcefully removing squatters who have no alternative shelter to which they could go, the spectre of a humanitarian problem has arisen. While humanitarian consideration may guide some Government policies, humanitarian objectives cannot be the over-riding factor in the choice of policy options. Nevertheless, while I concede that some measure of compassion (squatters will receive a portion of the 300 house lots to be given out now) was exercised, a little more could have been done in respect to those squatters who have no place to go. The authorities and NGOs could help to find temporary shelter until squatters could get their own property. With the PPP/C Government’s promise to make available 50,000 house lots in five years and the construction of 500+ turnkey homes, the future of housing the Guyanese people seems bright.

Dr Tara Singh